The ascendancy of the broad civil rights, peace and sexual openness movement of the 1960s and 1970s came to a screeching halt some time around the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 in a manner as sudden and surprising as the election of Margaret Thatcher's Tories in 1979, an election I witnessed while living in London.
Just as Thatcher shook the Labour Party, Reagan was an unexpected blow to the U.S. liberals, who espoused centrist or center-left views. When the Republicans nominated Reagan candidate, I was convinced Carter's reelection was assured.
U.S. presidents are usually reelected and serve a term of eight years. Until Carter, only nine of the 37 previous presidents had been in power for a single four-year term or less. One of them was Carter's predecessor, Gerald Ford, who was appointed by Nixon and never elected. Before Ford, there was Herbert Hoover, who failed to be reelected in 1932 at the outset of the Great Depression, for which his party was blamed, arguably with some justification.
Nothing remotely resembling the Depression had happened under Carter. Why did the electorate end up denying him a second term and handing over the White House to a mediocre actor whose governorship of California had little to show for itself?
In part, Reagan's victory can be attributed to something Lyndon Johnson predicted to his intimates when he signed the Civil Rights Act. "We've given the South to the Republicans," Johnson said. The Republicans adopted the famous "southern strategy," the stoking Southern white resentment at the advancement of African-Americans. Indeed, Reagan's 1980 campaign was launched in Philadelphia, Miss., site of the slaying of three civil rights workers -- in effect, a dog whistle.
The campaign could also be called Goldwater's revenge. This became evident to me years later when I studied the resumes of key but lesser known Reagan people. These were folks of more or less my generation whose political awakening had come with the electoral beating of Barry Goldwater in 1964. These Republican political operatives had quietly established a neoconservative network financed by executives and millionaires (today we would say billionaires), all essentially dedicated to reversing every social and economic reform since 1932.
Republican neoconservatives were split from the outset into two significant wings.
Some wanted to mandate the reversal of social changes in sexual morality (legalization of abortion, for example), women's relatively broader life choices and, laterally without explicitly saying anything out loud about it, racial integration. These were the social conservatives.
Others wanted to revert civil society to what it was more or less around 1928, before the stock market Crash of 1929, to a country in which there was no public financial assistance, few workers were in unions, taxes were very low and the stock market and banking sector operated essentially free of legal constraints. These were the economic conservatives.
The social neoconservatives courted Christian fundamentalists disenchanted with Carter. They also wooed conservative Catholics who saw as "heresies" in both the "spirit" of the Second Vatican Council and the massive rejection of the papal prohibition of the contraceptive pill and aspired to a return to the social "orthodoxy" of the 1950s. (These folks forgot about the era's discrimination against Catholics.)
There were voters coming from military families who, despite the military tradition of absolute partisan neutrality, felt betrayed by Democratic politicians during and after Vietnam. To these add male, white industrial workers and "ethnics" (non-Anglo-Saxon whites), resentful of losing labor and economic pre-eminence to African-Americans and women.
All of these were the people Spiro Agnew had called "the silent majority," whom a relatively obscure preacher from Virginia now called "the Moral Majority," a base clamoring for what was then called the Reagan Revolution, which was actually akin to the French Revolution's Thermidorian reaction, a counter-revolution.
Reagan supporters were very effective propagandists. They spoke of a modest electoral victory (Reagan won 50.8% of the popular vote) as a "landslide" merely because Reagan managed to get the majority of electors in 44 states. They also managed to cast an old man who would soon be doddering but remained a capable script reader as "the great communicator."
The Reagan Administration tried, and in many cases succeeded, in reversing the socioeconomic policies of at least the previous 20 years thanks to its propagandists.
Some things could not be overtly reversed. Legal and institutional racial segregation was not coming back. However, Reagan managed to erode the power of unions, minorities and women; and he launched a vast redistribution of resources that favored the richest through tax cuts and public debt that paid handsome interest.
In order to bring down inflation, which hurts those who possess disposable wealth the most, Reagan triggered an recession that led to a 10 percent unemployment rate in 1982, the highest since the Depression. The downturn accelerated the decline of the middle class and in this way imposed wage and labor discipline. All these fireworks for the plutocrats, involving dull numbers noticed primarily by economists and stockbrokers, were hidden behind a clever smokescreen of social propaganda.
The counter-revolution turned neoconservative slogans into accepted social values. Overnight the entrepreneur became a hero, greed a virtue and the nuclear family a sacred institution that served as a safeguard against the ills of feminism, homosexuality and free love. God and calling oneself a believer was in fashion again. Washingtonian magazine, a bland regional glossy, expressed the Reagan zeitgeist in the nation's capital with an issue of those years whose cover proclaimed, "God is Back!"
Of course, God had never been gone -- at least beyond the U.S. Northeast and West Coast -- and neither had traditional values, the so-called Protestant ethic (hard work, frugality, family integrity and at least the appearance of sexual restraint). During the 1960s and 1970s, the era's youth and intellectuals had only made it seem that way.
More significant was the social and cultural behavior of those whom Agnew had called "silent" and were now empowered.
The N-word returned. It was used by Randy Newman, for example, in a satirical song about "rednecks." Although Newman did not intend this as an insult (quite the contrary: he was mocking those who still used that term), was a sign of change that this kind of joke could be played on the radio without causing riots.
I heard the word one morning in the fall of 1988, used by a white, upper-middle-class man standing in his bathrobe at the door of his elegant suburban Bethesda house. He spoke angrily to an African-American woman, a mail carrier who, as I witnessed it, had accidentally let her bundle of mail drop to the man's feet, instead of delivering it in his hand. It was dreadful to hear and I still remember the scene exactly, even the location: Bradley Lane.
Something similar happened with "girl" instead of "woman" or "young woman". It was one of many terms (mailman had become mail carrier) that feminism had managed to establish as a less unconsciously prejudiced vocabulary.
Hippies were ridiculed, as was sexual debauchery (which declined with the onset of AIDS) and recreational drugs. Curiously, in the world of finance cocaine spread, as a stimulant whose frenzy effect meshes well with the Protestant work ethic; a cocaine-fueled broker is very, very, very attentive ... at least until the effect fades.
The ideas spread that government was inefficient by nature, unions a bunch of goons and every modern education strategy was a fanciful but mistaken concoction of African-American novelists and lesbian poets. Once again people spoke with awe of the traditional Eurocentric literary and intellectual canons (also called "dead white men").
All this was captured in an Orwellian showpiece: a 1984 Reagan reelection television commercial that began with the memorable words, "It's morning again, in America." The commercial shows white faces, middle-class suburbs, a stationwagon and a wedding. In the world of that commercial it's as if the hippies, the anti-Vietnam War movement and the struggle of African-Americans and women for their human rights had never happened.
This is the sixth in a short series of posts that attempt to sketch contemporary U.S.cultural and social history, dwelling on how the time and place felt from a personal perspective, with the history whose first draft appeared in the newspapers in the background.